True Confessions (Wheaton College edition)

This long article/essay/meditation by Ruth Graham on the disturbing events at Wheaton College last year — click on the “wheaton” tag at the bottom of this post for some of my thoughts about that situation, and other issues related to Christian higher education — is by far the best thing that anyone has written on the subject: the most deeply researched, fair-minded, and thoughtful. I commend it to you whole-heartedly.

I’m going to take a personal turn now. Ruth was a student of mine, so I’m especially gratified by passages like this:

During my four years at Wheaton, I drifted away from evangelicalism. But I never contemplated transferring to another school. I was reading Foucault and Judith Butler (Shakespeare and Milton too); my professors were brilliant and kind and I found plenty of kindred spirits. When the religion scholar Alan Wolfe visited Wheaton for a cover article about evangelical intellectualism in The Atlantic in 2000, halfway through my time there, he found a campus whose earnestness was both endearing and impressive: “In its own way, campus life at Wheaton College resembles that of the 1960s, when students and a few professors, convinced that they had embarked on a mission of eternal importance, debated ideas as if life really depended on the answers they came up with.” At a suburban dive bar on the edge of a marsh, we drank illicit Pabst on Saturday night and talked about politics, music and philosophy like undergraduates anywhere. Then we got up on Sunday morning and went to church.

(By the way, Wen Stephenson, who became my friend during his work as an editor on that Atlantic story, interviewed me about its topic. I can’t bring myself to re-read that interview, but there it is.)

During my 29 years teaching at Wheaton, I saw many students “drift away from evangelicalism.” I didn’t always regret that — it depended on what they drifted to. Evangelical Protestantism is by no means the only way to be a faithful Christian, and for some people it proves impossible, or at least very difficult, to be a faithful Christian in that tradition. But sometimes I did regret the drifting, if it led away from Christian faith altogether.

Still, we all, among the faculty, accepted that risk — it was and is built into the DNA of Wheaton (as it is in my current academic location, the Honors College at Baylor). As I’ve commented elsewhere, “The likelihood of producing such graduates is a chance Wheaton is willing to take. Why? Because it believes in liberal education, as opposed to indoctrination.” So I understood and accepted that the exposure to new and powerful ideas, some of them quite alien or hostile to Christianity, has a tendency to change people, sometimes quite dramatically.

But here’s my True Confession: what I’ve always found hard to accept is how many of my students — how many of my best students, including the ones I’ve invested the most time and energy in — become so embarrassed about having attended Wheaton that they never, later in life, publicly acknowledge the quality of the education they received there. In their determination to separate themselves from the religious world they grew up in — and also, it must be said, in attempts not to have their careers or social lives torpedoed by anti-evangelical prejudice — they are just not willing to say what Ruth says here: that however frustrating they found the chapel services, and however stiff-necked they believed the college’s administration to be, at least they received a first-class liberal-arts education from smart and caring teachers, most of whom also understood and sympathized with and did not judge students for any drifting from evangelical orthodoxy.

Let me emphasize again that I very much understand the impulse: many of these students can pay a social or vocational price for acknowledging that they attended Wheaton. What a blessing it is that there’s another Wheaton College, in Massachusetts: Maybe people will think I went there. And if people do find out that you graduated from “that fundamentalist school,” then perhaps the best strategy for moving forward is to say that you hated every minute of it, and repudiate it with all your being.

So I get all that. But it makes me sad, you know? Because I devoted my best energies to teaching those students — it was always a heart-and-soul thing for me, it really was. And because, while some graduates of Wheaton hated everything about it and can’t stand anyone involved with the place, many of them place a great value on the education they received there. I know: they tell me. But they only do so in private. And for my part, I keep their shameful secret.

Dan Treier on tragedy and wisdom

My friend Dan Treier has written a long, thoughtful, sober, and wise post on what Wheaton College — and other Christian institutions — can learn from the Larycia Hawkins debacle. I hope some of the people, both inside and outside the college, who right from the beginning of the controversy, when little was known about what was actually happening, shouted their judgments and demands from the rooftops will read and heed.

a suggestion about the future of Wheaton College

When I was visiting Wheaton College last week I happened to hear a story on NPR about Intel’s attempts to create a more diverse workforce, with more women and minorities. Apparently Intel is putting a lot of energy behind this endeavor, and having some success, though retention continues to be a problem.

I was especially taken by one moment in the report:

Freada Kapor Klein is an investor who funds diversity-focused startups like Jopwell, which connects job candidates who are underrepresented minorities to tech companies. Klein says culture is key.

Tech companies don’t just make new engineers pass a coding test. They have to pass a “culture fit” test. That’s where a huge amount of bias creeps in, she says, as existing teams only want a unicorn. “They are looking for the one-in-a-million person who comes from a different racial, ethnic, cultural, gender background, but in every other respect is identical to the white and Asian men who work there,” Klein says. “That’s not diversity.”

It seems to me that this is a story that the leadership of Wheaton College should meditate on as the college tries to move on from its difficult relationship with Larycia Hawkins. I believe — I have good reason to believe — that Wheaton really, truly, seriously wants to have a faculty and student body that is more reflective of the ethnic and cultural range of worldwide evangelical Christianity. But I also saw, during my twenty-nine years on the Wheaton faculty and several years as director of the Faculty Faith and Learning program, far too many situations in which non-white faculty members were treated, if not with outright suspicion, then at least with bemusement and puzzlement, because they did not express themselves in ways that matched the cultural practices of white midwestern evangelicalism.

Minority faculty were of course not the only ones to have this kind of experience; it happened also to white faculty from charismatic or Pentecostal traditions, and to some others as well. But minority faculty — who not incidentally tend also to be charismatic or Pentecostal — always seemed to be under deeper and more lasting scrutiny.

I remember one black colleague who devoted two weeks to studying a book and then, at the end of that time, said to his class, “I don’t think that went as well as it should have. Let’s do it again. We’ll have to leave out the next book or two on the syllabus.” Some students — I don’t know how many — went ballistic over this. That’s not what the syllabus says! I’ve already bought those other books and now we’re not even going to read them! Some faculty and administrators became concerned over this “lack of professionalism”; they wondered whether Wheaton could afford to have faculty “the students don’t really respect.” Me, I just wished I had the courage to go off-script that far; though I guess the deep-seated reluctance to go off-script is a trait I shared with white midwestern evangelicalism, one that helped make me comfortable at Wheaton, even though I am not midwestern. But I also believe that if I had gone off-script in precisely that way it would not have created the same degree of consternation. I am convinced that my colleague’s race made students, faculty, and administrators wonder what else he might do that deviated from the script.

To my lasting regret, that colleague left Wheaton, under less than ideal circumstances, and I believe he was allowed to leave simply because he wasn’t a unicorn. He was not someone who had dark skin but was “every other respect … identical” to the overwhelmingly white world he worked in. He didn’t “fit the culture” — and note that in this case the lack of fit was not even theological, or spiritual, but (supposedly) professional.

But what if the narrow scope of “the culture” is a bug, not a feature? What if a more ethnically diverse faculty, even if it contained people who made some of the existing faculty and administration and alumni and donors uncomfortable, helped the college to achieve its mission? I made a similar argument some years ago in suggesting that Wheaton should be open to hiring Roman Catholics — my logic here is fundamentally the same. What if an institution’s existing culture, and its concern to hire people who “fit” its existing culture, actually inhibit its ability to fulfill its mission?

Wheaton has a detailed and quite specific Statement of Faith, but again and again over the past few decades faculty who can enthusiastically sign that Statement have been deemed not quite right, not comme il faut, not “one of us.” The (often inchoate) sense of institutional culture and “fit” has too often trumped the college’s explicit statements of what it’s all about. Here’s my proposal: What if Wheaton were to trust its own Statement of Faith? What if it were to open its doors to people who don’t look or speak or think like the typical Wheaton person — but who share the same convictions? Might the college not, ultimately, be greatly invigorated by all that new blood? Might it not come closer to the vision granted to John the Revelator? “After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice:

Salvation belongs to our God,
who sits on the throne,
and to the Lamb.

a conclusion and a beginning

Now that the crisis at Wheaton College has been more or less sorted out — though the repercussions will continue to be felt for years, and the lawyerly curse of “confidential agreements” means that we’ll never know exactly how it all went down — what should happen is the beginning of a long period of reflection by all involved.

But that’s not the tone of what I’m hearing — though I can only hope that what I’m hearing is not representative. Because it seems that many of the supporters of Prof. Hawkins are in no mood to forgive members of Wheaton’s administration. In a widely leaked email to the college community, Provost Stan Jones wrote, “I asked Dr. Hawkins for her forgiveness for the ways I contributed to the fracture of our relationship, and to the fracture of Dr. Hawkins’ relationship with the College…. I apologized for my lack of wisdom and collegiality as I initially approached Dr. Hawkins, and for imposing an administrative leave more precipitously than was necessary.” And so on. It’s a very full apology. But I have already read a number of comments from Christians that this apology is problematic because it does not acknowledge Wheaton’s history (and present) of structural racism and sexism.

This kind of response strikes me as uncharitable, unproductive, and shortsighted. And I say this as someone who believes that Wheaton really does have serious problems in knowing how to deal with faculty and students who are not white males.

What if, when a brother in Christ apologizes and asks for forgiveness, one were to grant that forgiveness — instead of immediately criticizing him for not having provided a fully adequate account of the reasons he went astray? What about that as a strategy? It has some advantages:

  • It’s a matter of obedience to a commandment: “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” And if the response is, “Well of course I forgive him” — no. Forgiveness is never a matter of course. It is too important, and too hard, mere to assume. When asked for and granted, forgiveness should, for a time, be the only air we breathe, we who have been at odds with one another.
  • To grant forgiveness to one who has offended against us is to open ourselves to the possibility of our sins against them. We may need to ask for the very benefit we have just granted; if so, it is good for us to know we have that need.
  • It is on the basis of forgiveness requested and received that we can then go on to explore, together, the deeper structural causes of our sins against each other. Those who have been reconciled in Christ can be bold in exploring these deeper causes; knowing the peace of reconciliation, we need not fear even the darkest truths.
  • To think in this way is to accept that reconciliation that lasts, reconciliation that bears spiritual and moral fruit, is an ongoing process. There is a sense in which the exchange of forgiveness instantly reconciles us to one another; but there is a deeper reconciliation that happens only over a long period of living in one another’s presence (and the presence of the living Christ within us).

So to those who say that Provost Jones’ apology is inadequate, my answer would be: of course it is inadequate. Every act of penitence, including yours and mine, is inadequate. We know ourselves in part, as if through a glass darkly, and in this world will make limited progress in understanding why we act as we act. But every act of penitence is also a beautiful thing, especially when it comes from those who have to do so in public, exposing their shortcomings and sins to the whole mocking social-media world. (Some of those who are currently lambasting or smh-ing at Jones should perhaps do better to be on their knees in gratitude that their own sins and shortcomings have not played out on so well-lit a stage.)

So why not see an apology such as this not as the conclusion to something, but rather the beginning of something? President Ryken has asked Wheaton’s Board of Trustees to begin an inquiry into this whole mess, to try to understand how it became such a mess. I think that process is more likely to bear good fruit if those who feel, and especially those who have genuinely been, most wounded by Wheaton are willing to be patient and hopeful and generous-spirited as the inquiry proceeds, not least because God has been patient and hopeful and generous-spirited with all of us.

understanding evangelicalism …

… is hard. Evangelicalism is a much more complex phenomenon than many of its detractors, and for that matter many of its adherents, are willing to acknowledge.

If you have half an hour to spare, listen to this:

Tim Blackmon is the chaplain of Wheaton College. Listen to his message and you’ll understand, I think, why the evangelical movement — which is simply a movement driven by love of the evangelium, the Good News — can’t be mapped onto any of our conventional political categories. It is intensely local and yet wholly cosmpolitan; it is deeply committed to conserving its traditions and yet revolutionary in its social (and personal) implications. It’s a far richer and more complex thing than almost anyone realizes.

What I am telling my Wheaton Art students on Monday

It’s strange that even while this controversy has caused so much grief and suffering, you will likely benefit from it, because you will study harder and learn more than you would have otherwise. I count Professor Hawkins a friend and I value her as a colleague, and I do not know what is happening. There is a dramatic contrast between media reports and the principled interfaith conversations that were happening in Wheaton long before all of this began. If it turns out (God grant it) that reconciliation with the administration is in the future, then we will have reason to rejoice. Perhaps principled protest will be required – I don’t know yet. Your and my civil bearing and Christian charity could have a role in bringing the best out of this situation. Please keep praying for that, and remind me to as well. Jesus was fully God and fully human at the same time. With his help (and with Muslim neighbors like ours) it is possible to be fully truthful and fully loving at the same time as well.

So buckle up, and let’s learn some art history. This could be the best semester of your life.

Matt Milliner, God bless his hopeful heart.

Wes Craven appreciation – Chicago Tribune

As a senior at Wheaton, Craven struggled with the neurological disorder known as Guillain-Barre syndrome. For most of the year he was paralyzed from the chest down, unable to attend classes. “I remember feeling terribly down,” he said in the 1997 Tribune interview. “The illness set back my graduation by nearly a year, but the support I received from students and faculty members through that period was so moving to me. People  I didn’t know came to visit, to pray for my recovery. To me, their thoughts and prayers represented the best side of Christianity. I’ll never forget that side of Wheaton College. Never.”

— Wes Craven appreciation – Chicago Tribune

academic freedom redux

My professional life has been framed by two very different institutions. For the first twenty-two years of my academic career, I taught at the University of Washington in Seattle. In many ways, my time there was a blessing. The UW is an elite academic institution with an extraordinary faculty and world-class resources. During my time there it boasted five Nobel Prize winners, one of the largest libraries in North America, and was ranked by the Economist as one of the top twenty public universities in the world.

I also made several good friends at UW and benefited from a number of genuinely kind colleagues who took sincere interest in my well being, both personal and professional. Finally, I should acknowledge that I flourished there professionally — in certain respects. I was awarded tenure, rose in rank from assistant to associate to full professor, won the university’s distinguished teaching award, and was accorded a prestigious endowed chair in U. S. history.

And yet while I was experiencing a certain measure of professional success, my soul was always deeply divided….

For twenty-two years I accommodated my sense of calling to this secular dogma, bracketing my faith and limiting explicit Christian expressions and Christian reflections to private conversations with students who sought me out. In his book Let Your Life Speak: Listening to the Voice of Vocation, Parker Palmer writes movingly about the costs of such segmentation. Vocation is a calling to a way of life more than to a sphere of life. “Divided no more!” is Palmer’s rallying cry.

If I were to characterize my experience since coming to Wheaton four years ago, these are the words that first come to mind — divided no more. Wheaton is not a perfect place, nor did I expect it to be one when I came here. But I can honestly say that I have experienced much greater academic freedom at Wheaton than I ever did at the secular university that I left.

– My former colleague Tracy McKenzie

© 2018 Snakes and Ladders

Theme by Anders NorénUp ↑